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Improving the curriculum by broadening your subject focus

July 11, 2022, 7:33 GMT+1
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  • Work on your content delivery is never done, says Mary Myatt
Improving the curriculum by broadening your subject focus

There are several reasons why curriculum quality has risen up the agenda.

For one, there’s increasing recognition that the curriculum is more than preparing pupils for end-of-key-stage tests.

It goes without saying that it’s important for children to become competent in literacy and numeracy; however, if the wider curriculum is pruned in order to focus on SATs, then many will miss out on their full curriculum entitlement.

We also know that pupils who don’t do as well in the English reading test at the end of Year 6 generally stumble due to a lack of vocabulary. So how do we develop pupils’ vocabulary?

Well, by providing them with a rich, broad and balanced curriculum. And then the latest inspection framework (tinyurl.com/HDTeif) contains the quality of education judgement with a focus on the curriculum, which has provided the impetus for many schools to review the extent to which their curriculum is truly ambitious for all pupils. 

Given the increased interest in the curriculum, John Tomsett and I wrote Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders because we wanted to provide examples of how great subject leaders approach thinking about and planning for pupils’ success in their specialisms.

It quickly became clear that a primary book based on similar conversations with subject specialists would be welcomed, and so now we have Primary Huh

Curriculum development should never stop

The curriculum is a never-ending story, which means we need to become comfortable with the fact that our work will never be done.

However, instead of thinking of that as a chore, it is far more productive to regard curriculum development as a stimulating, intellectually interesting piece of work to get your teeth into.

We have found that colleagues become excited and that their passion for sharing important and interesting material with pupils is ignited when they come to realise just how fascinating it is.

And if the curriculum is a never-ending piece of work, we simply can’t rush to get it all done quickly; we need to pace ourselves, and work on it over time. And so how does this all relate to ‘Huh’?

Well, John discovered that Huh is the Egyptian god of endlessness, creativity, fertility and regeneration, and we think that it is a pretty good metaphor for our work on the curriculum!

Conversations about learning aren’t always polished

If revisiting the curriculum feels like a daunting prospect, then one of the most helpful things we can do is to talk to other people about how they have developed the curriculum for their subject or key stage.

The conversations that form the heart of this book have been genuinely inspiring to engage with. Gadamer said, “No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation […] a conversation has a spirit of its own, and the language in which it is conducted has a truth of its own so that it allows something to ‘emerge’ which henceforth exists.” (Gadamer, 1991)

The book’s intention is to try and model how those conversations might go. We wanted to get away from so many professional learning materials that are polished to within an inch of their lives.

Instead, we wanted something that accurately reflects the reality of the professional conversations that take place in schools up and down the country.

The upside of a book like this is that it contains the insights and ideas of individuals working hard to work out what to include and what to leave out. The downside of a book like this is that by presenting one take on a route through the potential minefield of curriculum design, it might be regarded as the only way to do it, which isn’t the intention at all.

We invited colleagues to critique and consider these conversations in the light of their own experiences and contexts. The films which formed the basis for the individual chapters are available to view on the Myatt & Co website (visit myattandco.com).

This means that teachers and leaders have the chance to hear and watch how these conversations went and make their own assessments: they certainly weren’t polished, and we think this is a good thing. As Sir Tim Brighouse says: “At the heart of school improvement is teachers and leaders talking about teaching and learning.”

Why learning each subject is vital

In the spirit of Huh, the intention is that the subject chapters contained within the book form the fuel for endless, creative, fertile and regenerative curriculum conversations in primary schools, and that from those conversations clarity and truth emerge as we all work to provide our young people with rich, challenging, ambitious curricula, whichever school they attend.

We wanted to articulate what is unique about each subject, how it develops pupils both intellectually and emotionally, and what they might be missing out on if they came to school and were not taught that subject.

And so, each section begins with passion and clarity about why learning in that arena matters – not just to society in general but also to our pupils and the communities served by our schools. 

Each chapter provides insights into the importance of individual subjects and the unique contribution each one makes to pupils’ cognitive and personal development. The subject chapters discuss the steps colleagues take to ensure that there is a coherent thread across the year groups, as the discrete subjects deliver, collectively, the primary curriculum. 

Considering the big ideas

We have tried to make the book as helpful as possible, so in addition to the conversations with subject leaders, we have also included the background to each subject – why we believe it has a place in the curriculum.

In addition, there are extracts from the purpose of study and importance statements for each subject. We have included these because we believe that there is sometimes a tendency for teachers to go straight to the programmes of study to see what needs to be taught, without considering the big ideas which underpin the subject.

There are also links to professional communities and subject associations, as well as links to helpful websites to further support subject development and high-quality materials. 


What we learned
Creating a balanced, high-quality curriculum is no simple task, but it is well worth the effort…

John Tomsett and I are secondary practitioners. While we have both done extensive work in primary schools over the years, we knew that we needed additional primary expertise to bring our project to fruition.

So, we enlisted the help of a handful of primary colleagues to support us: Rachel Higginson, Lekha Sharma and Emma Turner. Alongside this, we also interviewed more than 30 primary practitioners about how they go about designing the primary curriculum. 

Considering the diverse nature of primary schools in this country, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that we were soon confronted by numerous context-dependent curriculum complexities that we needed to unpick.

The conversations we had as part of this process confirmed that shaping a primary school curriculum can be a really tricky business! 

Along the way, we also learned that primary subject experts are truly alert to the beauty and power of their subjects: they know how to make it local and relevant to their children; they know how to extend the boundaries so that pupils can engage in and contribute to the world, beyond their classroom.


Mary Myatt is the founder of Myatt & Co and the co-author of Primary Huh: Curriculum conversations with subject leaders in primary schools (John Catt Educational, £11.55), which is available now.

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